February 13, 1997
Edited by Craig O'Connell
Next month, with my wife and 7 year old in tow, I will take the Silver Meteor to Orlando, Florida for a week at Disney World. This is at least our 10th trip by rail for my family, the first being almost 7 years ago just after Ted was born. As a major league railfan, I made my first cross country rail trip in the fall of 1988, just 6 months before the birth of my son. It was assumed by my family that this would be the last of such trips, then I could settle down to family life of diapers, colic, and, later on, Saturday soccer games. As it turned out, it just didn't work that way. I got hooked. Casting common sense to the wind, I convinced my wife that train travel was good for the family and that this was a great way to create quality time together. As we were planning to visit my wifeıs sister in Portland, Oregon later in the fall, we decided to test the waters with a short trip from our home in Rochester, New York to Boston for a long weekend. Taking the Lakeshore Limited was relatively uneventful and, besides the usual tardiness that this train seems to love, we finished the trip armed with the knowledge that the Fall trip was doable. Travel about 5000 miles with a six month old child? No problem.
October came fast enough and soon I found myself awaking that dark, cold morning at 1:00 a.m. to place that call to the local Amtrak station to find out what mischief train 49/449 was up to. Beating the odds the train was actually running on time and was due at 2:23 A.M. Awakening my wife, we finished packing. When one is about to go on a three day trail trip with a baby in diapers, the logistics become scary. Letıs see, 10 to 12 diapers per day times three days equals 36 diapers...but wait a minute, you say that there is no disposable diapers allowed in the environmentally correct state of Oregon, so we must take diapers for the whole week. That makes 84 diapers, plus spares and that is just the beginning. To that you must add, baby clothes, special blankets, towels and baby wipes, enough lubricating and drying ³goop² to float a ship, and a baby stroller. Add to this clothes for two adults and rail fan equipment (donıt forget, Daddy is still going for the train ride) which included cameras, video equipment, a large tape recorder, train log, and a scanner. Even after sending a carton of diapers ahead two days earlier, (please Amtrak, donıt send them to El Paso, Texas by mistake!) we still looked as if we were heading out with the 49erıs on the Oregon trail by covered wagon. So much for the two suitcase rule.
The last thing to be done before leaving our house for the station was to scoop up Ted from his crib. We might have skipped this step, but that would have shot any chance of me winning the ³father of the year award² for 1989. Arriving at the station only one hour and 30 minutes early (hey, rail fans have to check out the station too), my wife tried to convince Ted that three hours of sleep for a six month old was insufficient, as I walked the station platform anticipating the Lakeshore's arrival. I had begun to record on audio tape all train trips which include my comments about the scenery, the fellow passengers, the on-board service crew, car numbers, and all scanner reports. This all takes a lot of time and concentration on my part and I often have to wait until the completion of a trip to find out if I enjoyed it. A small price to pay.
At the appointed time, I looked east to see the beams of the F 40-PH coming out from the darkness. Our family rail adventure was really about to begin.
For a seasoned rail fan such as myself, the inside of a deluxe bedroom on a 6-10 sleeper is huge, with such amenities as a long car-wide sofa and an enclosed bathroom. To the neophyte, such as my wife, her first sighting prompted her to remark what a large ³closet² Amtrak provides, but where do we sleep? After I provided her with the facts of rail life and her protests subsided, we settled in for the over night ride to Chicago, 600 miles down the track.
We were traveling with a small travel crib and the first manner of business was to set up the crib in the space between the lower bunk and the wall. We quickly discovered that the crib simply would not fit with the bed opened. Closed, however, the crib just fit, leaving enough space to get into the bathroom. I should add that the room configurations only work in space A,C, and E. B, D, and F have their neighborıs bathroom sticking into their space and the crib will not fit. I found that out on a trip to Florida but that's another story.
With the crib in place, the upper bunk down (mine) and my wifeıs bed left in the up position, we attempted to sleep. I cannot imagine what the floor of a moving sleeper must look and feel like to a 6 month old child but I have to assume that Ted found it less than ideal as he left it perfectly clear that he was not going down without a fight. Somewhere just east of Cleveland slumber finally overtook him and bliss finally settled into room C, car 4900 of train 49/449. Two hours later we pulled into Toledo and it was time for dad, well rested with over 3 hours sleep, to inspect the train.
Toledo was always a special station stop for me as I spent years at the University of Toledo back in the 1960ıs and I remember taking the train, under Penn Central, home. Here it was over 20 years later and the station was looking a little warn. It still has several canopies but only one of them is covered and used. The other sets of tracks are rusted and weeds push up between the rails. As I walked the train to record the numbers of the cars, I also enjoyed the sights and smells of train even including the diesel fumes coming from the engine. During these stops I always run into other train buffs who also enjoy viewing the configuration. Some take pictures, some enjoy touching the equipment or talking to each other telling stories of how great the trains used to be. Iım not old enough to remember steam and grew up during the ³bad old days² of the Penn Central so I find most of Amtrak quite nice for rail fanning.
Leaving Toledo I returned to my sleeper where my wife and child were amusing each other. The sights and sounds of mid-America passed by on cue as we rolled through northwestern Ohio and Indiana. Approaching Chicago the train goes past the vast industrial steel plants outside of Hammond, Indiana. Crossing the Chicago River into the Amtrak coach yards, we got our first look at Metraıs venerable E9ıs. To a diesel lover who came of age in the late 1950ıs, this is the engine of choice- the streamliner passenger engine. I was in love.
Detraining in Chicago with all our baggage made us a natural target for the local red caps. Paying several thousand dollars for a one week train trip never bothered me but having someone else carry the luggage of a healthy adult male (me) did. After wrestling my luggage back from the gentleman, we made our way into the vast interior of Union Station. The first class passenger lounge was only a gleam in Mr. Claytorıs eye at this point so we had to camp in steerage. With twelve pieces of luggage and a whiny kid, I felt at home.
There is something very special about making a cross country train trip. You have a sense that you are starting a great adventure not unlike those of the early pioneers except without the dangers , although Amtrak often adds a small bit of uncertainty that our forbearers must have felt. At the sound of the P.A., all passengers with sleeper accommodations went up to the check-in desk to get their room assignments. This completed, we were allowed to walk past the gate and onto the waiting Superliner. West coast here he come.
For those travelers who are use to the standard coach seat, nothing can prepare you for the sheer delight and expanse of Amtrak's family bedroom. For the duration of your trip you ³own² two large windows and an entire cross section of the train. No longer will the rider suffer the pain of being on the wrong side of the train when all the good scenery passes by. The other aspect of being in that bedroom is the fun of crossing the country at 79 m.p.h. only inches from the ground. It really makes you feel like your right in the thick of the passing landscape.
The first major event when departing on a long train journey is the welcome aboard announcements and ³in-person² greetings by all the on-board service crew. A good Chief-of-on-board Services will get on the P.A. before the train pulls out to do his or her welcoming speech. This is where the train becomes a real joy as you find out about all the amenities the train has to offer and the special sights we will be seeing during the next few days. One of my many defense mechanisms I use when supporting train travel over flying is the fact that when flying all you see are two airports, cornfields from 30,000 feet, and the tops of clouds. On the train you see America for real. Buildings, trees, factories, and junkyards; the backyard of our country.
Leaving Chicago we again passed through the coach yards and then made a sweeping right hand turn as the California Zephyr/Desert Wind/Pioneer (those were the days!) began its long journey to the west coast.
After all on-board announcements are made, the next order of business is what I call the ³greeting of the crew² segment which includes the room attendantıs ³my name is Bob, and Iıll be your attendant for the entire trip , etc., etc.² He or she will ask if you are familiar with the room and then will show all aspects of this little piece of Amtrak youıve rented for the next day or so. ³This is the heater, this is the cooling (rarely do they work much) this is the lights and this is the call button when you need me²
One of the major advantages of the western Superliners is the ability to raise and lower your own bed which adds some flexibility to using these room functions (no waiting for attendants) and when dealing with a cantankerous infant, a major plus. Next to visit are the men in blue, the conductors. They are the ones who take those valuable pieces of paper youıve been guarding with your life for the last 8 months and shred them without a moments hesitation handing you some stumps which you hope will enable the family to reboard for the journey home. The last guest to visit is the representative from the Dining Car to make reservations for tonight's food extravaganza. Most veteran train riders tell you to never take the earliest time slot for meals as it leaves you with too much time at the end of the day and one should use all daylight traveling for window gazing, not eating. A small child however, doesn't care if the stateıs largest mine pit is about to be crossed or the mighty Mississippi River is coming up. If the stomach is empty, it must be fed. Five oıclock reservations will do just fine, thanks.
Rolling across the heartland of Illinois, our first meal was beginning. As with a cruise ship, meals on a train are often the high point of the trip. The diner menu consists of several meat dishes, chicken, fish, and a vegetarian offering. All meals include a salad, rolls, and dessert served with a beverage. Since meals are included with the room accommodations one tends to eat everything that is offered. Considering that Amtrak has a captive audience, most passengers agree that the food is good, plentiful, and reasonably priced. Seatings are done in groups of 4 to a table so eating meals in the diner affords the opportunity to meet fellow passengers. Being a threesome with a small child however, greatly reduces the of chances mingling. But on this, our first trip west with Ted, we were fortunate to sit with just about every kindly ³grandmother² traveling alone to visit grandkids in California, Oregon, or Washington.
Lingering at dinner is one of my passions during a train trip but once again Ted would have no part of my wishes. Done eating? Lets go!
Back in the room we found that the Attendant had lowered the beds so my wife began the arduous task of opening the travel crib once again. The crib did fit but the only way one could leave the room was to vault over the top. Somewhere in the recesses of my young childıs memory are some pretty strange visions of his parents coming and going from that room during the first night. Having had only 3 hours of sleep the previous night, which now had become one long day, sleep was a bit easier the first night out of Chicago. Even my wife and child slept most of the time as we traversed the states of Iowa and Nebraska while our train headed for Colorado and the mile high city of Denver.
While traveling west on the Zephyr, Denver affords the first real opportunity to get off the train, stretch and get some fresh air. After two nights and a day on board, even the most ardent rail fan needs a break. Collecting my family we de-trained and headed into the station for a look around. Denverıs Union Station is a wonderful building, huge especially considering it only gets two trains each day. There is a restaurant, a gift shop, and until recently, a railroadianna collectible shop where one could, for considerable coinage, get rail related books, videos, magazines, and even a full conductorıs uniform. We spent most of our time looking in the stores, reading some magazines and of course walking the platform. At this point in the trip, the Zephyr was composed of really three trains. The Pioneer whoıs final destination is Seattle Washington, the Desert Wind, bound for Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr heading for Oakland. In other words, this is a very long train. A third engine is added in Denver to help pull it over the Continental Divide. As this was my first trip on this train I went through at least one roll of film just parked at the station. The train is also fueled and watered and resupplied with food. This is very important because it is a little known fact that Amtrak almost always runs out of your favorite food sometime during the trip, and even more important, the toilets on your car run out of water and one has to walk to another car to take care of business which is no fun at 2 a.m.
After a two hour layover, scheduled for only 60 minutes, we reboard, headed directly to the lounge car and began the part of the trip which is for most, the main reason to take the train. Heading west we began our assault on the Front Range of the Rockies Mountains.
It's two thousand, four hundred and twenty-five miles between Chicago and Oakland. For most of the trip getting a seat in the Sightseer Lounge is easy as we just enter the car and sit. However, all that changes once the train pulls out of Denver. Then every Tom, Dick, and Harriet run to secure a good seat in that now coveted car. Being a knowledgeable train rider I gathered my family, recorder, and camera and headed toward the head end. For the next 274 miles we were welded to those seats. The train soon leaves the junk yards and tacky scenery of Denver behind and begins a series of 10 degree turns as it struggles to climb from Denver's mile high location to over 9000 feet in only 60 miles. Passing coal cars permanently welded to the siding to shield trains from being blown off the rails by the easterly winds, we entered the ³Tunnel District² passing through over 30 tunnels of varying lengths before entering the Moffat Tunnel. The terrain soon changes to rocky outcropping, spindly pine trees and, even late in the summer, small patches of snow and ice. During this part of the trip a good on board service chief will often provide the passengers with information about the scenery which is passing before them. Then in the middle of all this natural splendor the diner P.A. announces it's time for lunch. Do we continue to view this Rocky Mountain splendor or do we give up our hard fought for seats and eat? Once again Ted made the decision for us and we reluctantly retreated to the diner. Eating a hearty lunch while watching the approaching Moffat Tunnel is not a bad way to pass the time. During the ten minutes we were passing through the 6.2 mile tunnel, we feasted on our ice cream and peach pie. One had to give a thought to the 12 hours it used to take freight trains to climb over Rollinıs Pass before the completion of the tunnel, not to mention the forbidding climb on horse and covered wagon.
With lunch completed we found ourselves pulling into Winter Park. We had entered ski country. For the next 200 miles or so, the train picks up the Colorado River, following on its banks until late in the evening when it enters Grand Junction. The two most distinctive sections are the Glenwood and Gore Canyons. Glenwood Canyon is often wide enough to support herds of grazing elk while Gore is very narrow with sheer rock walls raising hundreds of feet overhead. Unfortunately the most obtrusive feature during this part of the trip is U.S. 70. This short section of interstate cost taxpayers over one billion dollars and actually often hangs from the sides of the canyon wall. From an engineering point of view it is quite interesting but for the multi-million dollar cost per mile one can only dream the the type of mass transit this country could have if it really tried.
At Glenwood Springs we got off the train for a short stop and again walked the length of the platform and enjoyed the view. Across the river from the station is the Colorado Hotel and the famous hot water swimming pool. This is the largest naturally heated pool in the world and stretches for a city block. Its warm water is utilized year round and the neighboring vapor caves complete this resort community. Forty miles down the road is Aspen, one of the worldıs most glamourous ski towns. Last month a friend and I came here by train to ski. The contrast is great. When one arrives by one of the dozens of daily flights into town, as 99% of the people do, there are taxis, limos and hotel vans lined up to pick up travelers for the short 3 mile ride into town. At Glenwood Springs, the single eastbound and westbound train is met by practically no one. The local bus runs hourly and one has to walk about a quarter mile uphill to the bus stop. During this past trip, we were seven hours late and we made the final daily bus by less than ten minutes. And we wonder why more people donıt travel by train.
This minor problem aside, we reboarded and headed to our compartment and got ready to have our final diner on this leg of the trip. By the time you leave Grand Junction dinner is being served. These early meals with Ted on the train were an interesting balance of trying to get food for ourselves and keeping Ted from destroying the condiments on the table. Peeling sugar packets, tossing rolls, and close encounters with knives and forks were all favorite activities for the young traveler. Meals, which are the most leisurely part of any train trip, usually lasted ten to fifteen minutes which is the attention span of most tots his age. As we settled back into our sleeper, the train headed toward Salt Lake City. It is here that the train would split into three separate sections. One heads to Los Angeles, one to Oakland/San Francisco, our ours to Portland and Seattle. Although this activity is no longer done, it was a sight to see. Trains being coupled and uncoupled, engines all over the place, cars being added and most of the passengers completely confused. Being that his happens around midnight, many of those who chose to get of the train for what ever reason, often return to find there car no longer where they left it. At this point it really pays to listen to those announcements coming from the P.A. During at least one trip Iıve been on, the train (Washington section) actually backed up a quarter mile to deposit a frantic L.A. passenger back on the platform.
The final morning of the trip found us following the Columbia River . The land here is wide open and very green, a major contrast to the previous dayıs travel. By this juncture of the trip, we found ourselves spending most of the time trying to put ourselves together. Packing, repacking, looking for lost toys, and of course still looking out the windows at the beautiful Northwest scenery. We arrived in Portland in early afternoon not too far off the advertised time. Traveling with a small child usually entails having to take many opportunities to need the Service Attendantıs presences and it is at this point in the trip that the utilization of that great American institution comes into play -- The Tip. Even after dozens of cross country trips, Iıve still not managed to the graceful art of de-training, carrying hand luggage, my recorder, camera, scanner and, up till now Ted, and still have the ability to pass the chunk of change to the Attendant. I have two choices. The first is to stop, set down what Iım carry, and pay the man, which of course blocks all others behind me causing a public relations problem. The alternative is to walk beyond the step area, past the Attendant and drop my bags there. The Attendant, of course, sees me go past and assumes no tip. This, too, causes a major P.R. problem with this individual, which I wonıt get into here.
Minor problems aside, here we were, Portland, Oregon. Just three days ago we were standing in the cold morning air in Rochester, New York. Now, through the courtesy of Amtrak, we had traversed the Continent past major cities, open plains, several mountain ranges and river valleys to be deposited over 2500 miles later in the cold afternoon air of Portland. We were to do this activity several more times over the last 7 years. Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, and numerous trips to Florida. Obviously traveling with your family somewhat inhibits the true joy of rail fanning but it does have its moments, few of which occurred on this, Tedıs first, train trip. Over the years, however, things have improved. He now knows the difference between an F-40, an AEM7 and an FL9; important knowledge for any 7 year old. Next week we leave for Orlando and we will travel almost like normal passengers. No stroller, no diapers, no crib! Iıve even got Ted to carry some luggage.
My hope is that this love affair of mine of trains will be contagious. My greatest hope is that there are still trains for our future generations to love.
RETURN TO FRIENDS OF AMTRAK TRIP REPORTS MENU